We are ushered from the clouds into a provincial town in pre-War Germany by the confidential, oddly comforting narration of omniscient Death.
It is heard a few more times as events unfold and, as a narrative device, the effect somehow lightens the difficult circumstances in which the characters in The Book Thief find themselves.
This storybook unreality, this detached retrospection and sense that everything is just another page in an unending tale, is accompanied by art direction and design that is almost too stylised for its own good.
The daughter of a communist refugee, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), is delivered, for a fee, into the adoptive arms of Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). It is 1938 and Hitler’s Third Reich is about to drag Germany into its hateful abyss – interestingly, English, albeit with a Teutonic inflection, is spoken throughout and it is only in the scene where the stormtroopers come to burn the books that a spiteful, guttural German is unleashed, with subtitles, thus distancing the folksy burghers from the prevailing Nazism.
Hans, appreciating the hitherto illiterate young girl’s potential, teaches her to read and introduces her to the joys of literature.
A signwriter, he paints the alphabet on his basement walls and encourages Liesel to write new words as she learns to decipher them – our eye is caught by truth, judgment, gravedigger et al.
When Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew, takes refuge in the household there is the possibility that director Brian Percival will return us to the claustrophobic, psychologically draining world of Anne Frank, but the mood never becomes so dark.
As a diversion from the grimness of the situation, Liesel is courted, in a childhood, first-love way, by her neighbour, flaxen-haired Rudy (Nico Liersch). The kids are cute, but I thought neither was up to carrying the weight entrusted to them – in fact, Nélisse is at times gormless.
It’s a good movie, thoughtful and engaging, but it is only at the last, with Death narrating once more, that it makes tentative tugs at the heart.
~ John Campbell